Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tesla Horizons: Landing Gear

As we continue exploratory design for Tesla we'll be looking at all of our options for mechanically representing Tesla's progress theme (as discussed here). Each piece will examine what a few of the possible implementations might do to the surrounding set.

The first post looked at cards that improved themselves, tracking progress with the battlefield, and explicitly counting progress counters.

Counting on it

Intuitively the next area to look is the one quantity on the battlefield that never decreases in a normal game of Magic: land count.

There are a couple of problems right off the bat. Lands aren't easy to count for scaling effects because there tend to be so many of them relative to other quantities in the game. There will rarely be a creature that Ground Breaking can't kill and we certainly can't do something like card drawing at common.

Our best bet would be to make the format tempo-based enough that these spells get cast with low land counts, but enable games to go long enough for them to do more. One way to do that is to fill the set with aggressive creatures that gain additional value in the late game, especially if many of them can trade with one another in combat.

The issue of limited design space is exacerbated by the fact that in order to make a quantity tracked by instants and sorceries feel like it's progressing we need a high density in decks. Otherwise the previous one will be forgotten by the next time it comes up. Past designs in this space have solved the issue by counting specific land types, but that number grows less consistently and feels more like Nationalism than progress.

But the most egregious issue of them is that counting lands doesn't feel technological or steampunk. It feels natural, or maybe aristocratic. We can try to pass it off as exploiting natural resources, but I think it's a stretch. For now let's look at a cleaner option.

Tapping into Resources

Lands produce mana, so players are liable to have access to more and more as the game goes on. This area is a bit tricky because the game already uses mana for another purpose: casting spells. Even if we ignore that, these effects won't necessarily keep on growing because they compete with one another. Is there a way around that issue?

Putting it All Together

Ping is a little bit messy to template, but the basic idea is simple: multiple cards contribute to a single activated ability. As per Jade Phoenix's suggestion we're looking at combined space; Ping scales both with the number of relevant permanents you control and with the amount of mana you have access to.

The mechanic has some development challenges in making the cards playable on their own, but not overpowered in concert. We have an especially small target because we want players to have an interesting choice when deciding whether to Ping or cast spells.

Sticking the Landing

Like last week, I'm going to end this post with a challenge: design a common for some version of Tesla that tracks progress with lands or mana. You can use one of the implementations above, come up with your own, or leave it ambiguous and design a card that interacts indirectly.


  1. Ping looks a lot like my contribution to the File Sharing post, "Access the Machine". I see what you changed is that the "access cost" is not set. This fixes a lot of the issues you noted, which was the difficulty of developing around a fixed cost that scales with the number of creatures you control.

    My concern was that if you have one cheap Access cost (with an appropriately weak ability) out with a permanent with a costly Access cost (with an appropriately strong ability), you could use the costly Access at the rate of the cheap Access. Is this fine? Sure, maybe - it is a "two-card combo", and it's reliant on both parts being on the battlefield. I tried to balance it by changing the 'up-front costs' of effects, but perhaps your route is better.

    The reason I didn't pursue it is because, in your route, you want the "Access" costs to stick together kinda closely, with some variation, and some outliers. But if you want them to stick together closely, over time, wouldn't they end up within the same approximate range of costs? Then, you might as well just make them all the same cost, and just have the outliers be their own separate thing (like the creatures I made).

    Anyway, onto your other proposed mechanics this time:

    Counting lands works, but it is far too abstracted a form of "progress", I think. If "progress" is the theme of our set, we want that to be extremely clear from the mechanic that represents it. The name Frontier helps, but not enough, I fear.. the problem is that it feels like a land set, not a progress set. Furthermore, it's tough to balance around number of lands out.

    The second idea is just completely impossible to see as 'progress' unless you're already told what it means. It's great for the emotional design of the set, but not for the explicit design, if you see what I mean? In gameplay it comes across, but just by looking at cards? No.

    Progress via mana is the route I want to go with, for a few reasons: it doesn't have a concrete word like 'land' attached to it, so it is more flavor-abstract; it is more 'active', in that it's about CASTING or DOING things, rather than just having lands out; and it's cooler for the player to track, as spending lots of stuff is a lot more fun than just having lots of stuff.

    We could do this in a lot of ways. "Iterate", as we've discussed a lot, flat out tracks how much mana you spend and gives you bonuses for that. We could do something similar:

    Light the Spark {R}
    Sorcery C
    Light the Spark deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
    Breakthrough — Light the Spark deals 4 damage to that creature or player if you spent four or more mana on a spell or ability this turn.

    I chose "four" because that's the number JUST past average CMC in a Limited deck, IIRC. Obviously, the number is up for consideration. Also, I included abilities because it didn't seem too broken, and it sounded fun to build-around (especially if Ping/Access is in the same set!) but it's totally not necessary.

    This one's blunt, but it works!

    Another idea is to simply represent a 'wake' of invention. Like this:

    Divinnovation {3}{U}
    Sorcery C
    Draw two cards.
    Follow Up — Draw three cards instead if you cast a spell that cost more than Divinnovation this turn.

    Again, pretty blunt. (Pseudo-keywords generally are.) This mechanic is interesting because it varies greatly depending on what spell you put it on. It also works nicely as a storm variant, and people love storm.

    Trying to approach this from a keyword angle, we can use something like this keyword action:

    Facilitate (Until end of turn, other spells you cast that cost more than this spell cost {1} less to cast.)

    Another thing that echoes the essence of Storm. It's really bad wording though...


    1. On an unrelated note, I think one thing that we're missing about the concept of Progress is Achievement. When you make progress, you often invent something. You have an end product you can be proud of! Games like Seven Wonders do this with collecting sets, or constructing your Wonder - Citadels does it with having all the colors of buildings out - and so on. You have some "Magnum Opus" to work towards.

      One reason a lot of my mechanics in this post are inspired by Storm is that, to me, Storm is one of the ultimate achievements in Magic. It's literally called "going off" - it feels awesome when you achieve it! Casting multiple spells in one turn feels great, and creating an 'engine' that powers them out, that feels even greater!

      Other "Achievement"-styled Progress mechanics include one previous suggestion - I can't remember the name of the mechanic or the person who suggested it, sorry - where someone proposed a mechanic that gave you bonuses if you controlled an artifact and an enchantment. I loved that idea. It's a board state you really have to work towards in many formats, and they're the two most vulnerable card types - so when you pull it off, you feel great!

      Other mechanics like that would be cool. Other similar mechanics include 'constructing engines', like we saw in our "interconnected artifact" mechanics - and I previously suggested a mechanic that let you pull artifacts from outside the game, which to me was the most straightforward way to represent 'invention', and 'innovation' since "outside of the game" is extremely untapped space.

      Anyway... keep that in mind, when thinking about Progress! I think all mechanics that embody Progress should at least have some sort of Achievement possible with them.

    2. Lots of good stuff here.

      The only reason I can think to vary the cost to 'ping' is to vary the color requirements drastically:
      Automate {R}{U}{UR}
      Automate {B}{B}{B}
      Automate {3}{G}

    3. I was trying to set up Ping to be relevant in limited and constructed, but that could be done with your original version with a rare or two like:

      Savvy Sergeant {1}{W}
      Creature - Human Soldier
      Pingback costs you {1} less to activate.
      Pingback ({4}: Ping each permanent you control.)
      Ping — Creatures you control get +1/+1 until end of turn.

      I really like the storm-like gameplay as a progress analogy. I hadn't even considered tracking progress within a single turn!

      Inanimate, your point is also well taken. Just the growth on it's own is fine if there's a creature growing, but that's because it's inherently "getting somewhere." The rest of our considerations should do that too.

    4. I hadn't even thought about that, Jay - I was so focused on artifacts I forgot about colorful Access. Shows how valuable it is to get a new set of eyes on an idea sometimes.

      I agree that changing the cost is a smart idea. If it ends up being developed all to be the same, so be it - but designing it around multiple costs sounds so much more valuable, and gives the mechanic a lot more breathing room.

      I included the cards that automatically accessed the machine on ETB or upkeep to represent stuff like Savvy Sergeant. In retrospect, I should have just added a card that reduced the cost myself.

      "Getting somewhere" can definitely be abstract, which is nice. As long as you get to "live the dream" at some point, as long as there's some ideal board state to reach, you'll have a sense of Accomplishment when you reach it.

    5. Admittedly there will be extra tracking complexity to figure out how many times a player can ping with differing activation costs.

  2. Here's a crazy idea: scaling threshold.

    Well-Traveled Elf {2}{G}
    Creature-Elf (cmn)
    Colonize — When ~ ETB, put a +1/+1 counter on it for each land you control in excess of 5.

    Exotic Fireworks {1}{R}
    Instant (cmn)
    Colony — CARDNAME deals X damage to target c/p, where X is the number of lands you control minus 5.

    East India Trading {U}{U}
    Sorcery (unc)
    Draw a card for each land you control. Then discard 5 cards.

    1. There's a bit of math involved here and we still suffer from the flavor issues of the word "land", but I imagine this is a vast improvement as far as play patterns are concerned.

  3. We've discussed it before, but Level Up solves so much here.

    1. I agree. Or at least, a level-up-like. I'd argue that Monstrosity and Outlast both play in similar space, Outlast especially. Something along those lines would be great.

    2. What about something like:

      Learner — At the beginning of your upkeep, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME if [condition].

      Junk Sleuth
      Creature - Human Rogue - Common
      Learner — At the beginning of your upkeep, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME if you control a noncreature artifact.

      Mother Centipede
      Creature - Insect - Uncommon
      When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put a 1/1 green Grub creature token onto the battlefield with "Learner — At the beginning of your upkeep, put a +1/+1 counter on this if you control an Insect.

      Guardian Titan
      Creature - Giant - Mythic Rare
      Learner — At the beginning of your upkeep, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME if you are at 10 life or less.
      Remove a +1/+1 counter from CARDNAME: Prevent all damage a source of your choice would deal to you this turn

    3. The reason that we usually see variation in the reward rather than the hoop is that it's much easier to track. I like the idea, but I'm not sure how viable it is to have to check each different condition every upkeep.

      As for Level Up, Outlast, and Monstrosity. I could certainly be happy with something like either of the first two, but I have a much harder time getting a "progress" feeling from a card with only two stages. Level Up apparently got a fairly unenthusiastic response, so if we go that way I'd want to know that other options didn't fit or figure out how to make it more exciting to players. One option might be to give them more exciting final forms that are harder to reach so that players can dream bigger, but at some point it becomes hard to justify Null Champion+ at common.

  4. I have a big picture idea for Tesla based on the “counting on it” part of this post.

    What if the major theme of Tesla is Artifacts & Nonbasic Lands VS. Colored Spells and Basic Lands. The Nonbasics in the set would play well with artifacts in some way. And the colored spells would reward you for having basic lands. (Of course, there could be intermixing to make Limited interesting. Like White and Blue still like playing artifacts, and red and black like you playing nonbasics.)

    Nonbasic Matters gets scary when you consider dual lands, fetches, etc, but all the Nonbasics in this set would tap for colorless mana. More Urza’s Tower than Coastal Tower. I don’t want to get sidetracked with how this idea could impact older formats though. That’s a separate topic.

    “Past designs in this space have solved the issue [density of the effect in decks] by counting specific land types, but that number grows less consistently and feels more like Nationalism than progress.”

    Nonbasic lands that are Mines, Industrial Centers, Labs and Scrapyards feels like progress. Spells that have you count Forests or whatever feel like ancient primal magic fighting against technology.

    “Counting lands doesn’t feel technological or steampunk.”

    Counting nonbasics can though. Plus, tapping for colorless ties in directly with casting artifacts. Who came up with the alternate cost for artifacts that require you pay colorless mana. Not generic mana, colorless. That could be used here.

    How about that?

    1. The conflict of embracing the new advances vs. adhering to the old way is certainly worth exploring, but I think caring about two different things is going to weaken the message. I'd rather mechanically tie it to just one or the other of coloredness/basicness.

    2. I don't think it weakens the message at all if the two things are bound together in the deisgn. For example:

      Abandoned Lab (COM)
      T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
      Tap four untapped artifacts and/or nonbasic lands you control: Draw a card, then discard a card.

      Scrap Claw 2 (UNC)
      T: Target player exiles a card from his or her graveyard.
      Tap three untapped artifacts and/or nonbasic lands you control: Return target artifact card from a graveyard to the top of its owner's library.

      Walking Factory (RAR)
      T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
      Tap two untapped artifacts and/or nonbasic lands you control: Walking Factory becomes a 3/3 artifact creature until end of turn. It's still a land.

      These also have the open mana concept you talk about in the "tapping into resources." (Well except the last one maybe, unless it was changed to "target nonbasic land or artifact becomes a 3/3 until end of turn.") I feel like these designs fulfill the theme of making progress too.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. In an ideal world the common nonbasic land in the set (as I'm imagining it) would be:

      Simple Workshop (COM)
      T: Add 1 to your mana pool.

    5. I get that they both feel artificial, but under this model I think it's going to be much less clear what's going on when we print a green Shatter that's supposed to be part of the regressive druid faction fighting back against the industrial revolution, or whatever.

    6. I guess I don't understand what you're saying here. Nonbasic lands are just the means to production, so the green Shatter is flavored like traditional artifact destruction, and the red land destruction spell is about dismantling a factory or blowing up a mine.

    7. Disrupt Production 2R (UNC)
      Destroy target nonbasic land.

    8. Mostly it's a point of elegance. Not only are the cards more focused mechanically, but it allows players to draw a flavor connection more easily. For instance if an industrialist faction is represented by artifacts then players get some additional flavor behind every card that interacts with artifacts. It'll take them longer to parse these connections the more intricate they are.

    9. This is the first time you've mentioned Elegance as a critique of a concept. That is an extremely difficult thing to achieve in individual card designs, let alone the idea for an entire sets design. Still, colored versus colorless seems elegant to me.

      I really don't think Back-to-Magic (WUBRG) versus industrialist (Colorless) is too complicated. And I don't think having factions in each color that support Back-to-Magic and Industrialist will be too difficult for players to understand. Did Shards of Mirrodin have trouble depicting three different worlds in each color? No, each shard had unique keywords, playstyles and flavor. Did Scars of Mirrodin have trouble depicting two factions within a single color? No, it did so via flavor, mechanics, and watermarks.

      I don't think players will need to parse out whether a card works better with one faction or another, and really they shouldn't have to. It's our job in design to make faction cardss play well together, and individual cards to play well in a Limited environment. For example, I don't have an keyword idea for the Back-to-Magic faction, but let's call it Concentration. If a player opens a red spell with Concentrate that rewards them for playing a lot of red spells and a lot of mountains, it's clear which faction that represents before we even begin to use World building to send that message. If our design is delibrate, the player won't have trouble drafting a deck to support that strategy.

    10. Sure, but if every card has to care about both pieces, what do we even gain? Counting both Mountains and red spells has very little impact on deck building when compared to counting one or the other.

      Regardless, I think the 'mechanically incompatible' angle is a flawed approach that will cause the limited environment to feel prescriptive. On the other hand, if one faction just cares about artifacts and another just cares about swamps, you can play them together.

  5. Auras are progress. They can't exist without something to modify. We can count the number of auras pretty easily (Look for piled pairs of permanents).

    They are traditionally very ephemeral in contrast with artifacts' more mechanical identity, but we can either use our steampunk basis to make magical enchancement the hip thing on Tesla, or we can theme auras in Tesla very differently, as meta-scientific modifications to beings, as industrial buildings on lands, as complex upgrades to artifacts (and even other enchantments).

    Psionic Cloak {1}{U}
    Enchantment-Aura (cmn)
    Enchant creature
    Enchanted creature can't be blocked by creatures that aren't enchanted.

    Neural Network {W}
    Enchantment-Aura (cmn)
    Enchant creature
    Enchanted creature gets +1/+1 for each aura you control.

    Industrial Automation {G}
    Enchantment-Aura (cmn)
    Enchant land
    Whenever ~ or another enchantment ETB under your control, untap enchanted land.

    Spoiled Brain {1}{B}
    Destroy target creature that isn't enchanted.

  6. Cool. I can easily imagine this being a subtheme of one of the ten color pairs for Limited. It has good flavor, a unique play style and doesn't pull from the set's themes.

    1. I agree that this fits the bill perfectly when everything's according to plan. Now the question is: can we capture that feeling without making threats feel unanswerable like in Avacyn Restored?